Common Sense, Complexity and Leadership

Bye, Bye Common Sense

Great leaders are often ascribed traits that include ample common sense. But what passes for common sense is often a grab bag of miscellaneous, inconsistent ideas that are context dependent and less useful in the complex environments where leadership is called for most. 

common sense |ˌkɑmən ˈsɛns|


good sense and sound judgment in practical matters: use your common sense | [ as modifier ] : a common-sense approach.

Today Research in Motion announced that its founder Mike Lazaridis and his co-CEO Jim Balsillie would be relinquishing their roles with the company. In their place, a ‘pragmatic, operational-type guy ‘was installed. Presumably, Thorsten Heins has the common sense to lead RIM after the founders lost theirs. Yet, the pragmatic, common sense that RIM is looking for might not be what they need given the complexity of the environment they are leading in.

Common sense is a false lure in complex systems. In his recent book, Everything is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer, social network researcher  and Yahoo! Research scientist Duncan Watts eloquently critiques the concept of common sense, illustrating dozens of times over how “common sense” doesn’t fare so well in decisions that go beyond the routine and into the complex. Indeed. the very definition of the term implies that the problems that common sense works towards addressing are relatively simple and pragmatic.

Certainly, navigating daily social conventions might lend itself well to what we might call common sense. Watts refers to sociologist Harry Collins’ term ‘collective tacit knowledge‘ that is encoded in social norms, customs and practices of a particular world to describe common sense. However, what becomes common is a byproduct of many small decisions, dynamic and flexible changes to perspective, an accumulation of knowledge gained from small experiments over time, and the application of all of this knowledge to particular, context-dependent, situations. This constellation of factors and its interdependent, contextual overlap is why artificial intelligence systems have such a difficult time mimicking human thought and action. It is this attention to context that is most worth noting for it is this context that keeps common sense from being anything but common:

Common sense…is not so much a worldview as a grab bag of logically inconsistent, often contradictory beliefs, each of which seems right at the time but carries no guarantee of being right any other time.

Watts goes on to argue:

Commonsense reasoning, therefore, does not suffer from a single overriding limitation but rather from a combination of limitations, all of which reinforce and even disguise one another. The net result is that common sense is wonderful at making sense of the world, but not necessarily at understanding it.

Thus, we often concoct a narrative about the way something happens that sounds plausible, rational and be completely wrong. Throughout the book, Watts shows how often mistakes are made based on this common sense approach to solving problems.

When it comes to RIM, some have pointed to the late Steve Jobs’ assertion that they would have difficulty catching up to firms like Apple given that the consumer market is not their strength, the enterprise market is. Yet, Steve Jobs didn’t let the fact that Apple was a computer company stop him from making music players (the iPod), mobile phones (the iPhone) or becoming book, music and movie vendors (iTunes). A read of Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson reveals a man who was able to lead and be successful through what appeared to be common sense, yet was decidedly uncommon among media and technology leaders. That is why Apple is where it is and why so many other technology companies lag behind them or simply disappeared.

The reason is that common sense in leadership looks as simple in hindsight only, not in foresight or even in the present moment. This is one of the big points that Watts makes. He uses the example of Sony’s MiniDisc system that, when introduced, had all of the hallmark features of the innovations that Apple introduced (novel, high quality, portable, smaller, visible advantages over the alternatives), yet it was a spectacular failure. Canadian management consultant Michael Raynor has called this the strategy paradox. When qualities such as vision, bold leadership, and focused execution — all the commonsensical aspects of great leaders — are applied to organizations it can lead to great success (Steve Jobs and Apple) or resounding failures (RIM?).

Strategic flexibility, making small adjustments consistently, and imaging scenarios for the future in an ongoing manner are some of the potential ways to limit the damage from common sense (or use its advantages more fully). This requires feedback mechanisms and close monitoring of program activities, developmental evaluation, and a willingness to tweak programs and design on the go (what I call: developmental design) . It’s not a surprise that this incremental approach to development is consistent with the way change is best produced in a complex adaptive system.

By recognizing that common sense is less than common and is certainly not consistent, program designers, developers, evaluators and other professionals will be better positioned to provide true leadership that addresses challenges and complexity rather than adds to the complexity and creates more problems.

Photo: Goodbye to Common Sense Space by Amulet Dream from Deviant Art

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